The anti-popstar: Moby regains his focus
Moby's life has driven him to drink, drugs and therapy. Now we can see it too, in a photo album and show. He talks to Fiona Sturges and shows us some of his pictures
Friday 06 May 2011
Twenty years ago the dance musician Moby had his first hit with the Twin Peaks-sampling "Go". At the time he imagined his music career would last a year before people lost interest and he would have to get a real job.
"I decided I would look for work in a bookshop and music would become like a hobby," he says. "Honestly, that's what I assumed would happen."
And yet here he is, two decades and 10 albums later, a multi-million-selling 45-year-old sporting the same loose-fitting T-shirts, scuffed trainers and Woody Allen specs of his early-Nineties days. Bar the flecks of grey in his stubble, visually there is little to distinguish Moby from his 25-year-old self.
Except, of course, that everything has changed. Back then he was known for being a militantly tee-total, Christian, Marxist, New Yorker. Now he has abandoned Christianity, battled with alcohol dependency, and frequently voices regret for ramming socialism down people's throats ("What can I say? I essentially was a student spouting truisms for dramatic effect"). After 20 years living in the same spartan apartment in New York, he has just relocated to Los Angeles, where he has bought and renovated a small 1920s castle that, according to lore, briefly housed the Rolling Stones.
Ask Moby how this extraordinary career has unfolded and a note of confusion enters his voice.
"'Arbitrary' and 'odd' are the words which best describe the pattern of my career," he reflects. "I'm perpetually baffled by the whole thing. I've made records that everyone has hated and I've loved, and made records that everyone has loved and I've deemed, at best, mediocre. I don't know how all this happened. I've honestly never had a clue what I'm doing."
Such a statement might seem disingenuous from any other stupendously rich pop star, but coming from the small, professorial Moby, you are inclined to take it at face value. Courteous, articulate and amusingly self-deprecating, in conversation he is loath to take himself too seriously. If there's a monstrous ego lurking under the surface, he hides it well.
After "Go" came a string of similarly euphoric hits including "Feel So Real" and "Thousand", a song featured in the Guinness Records for having the most beats per minute. Yet Moby remained an underground figure, beloved of clubbers and largely invisible to the masses.
But then came 1999's Play, an album that drew upon the blues recordings unearthed in the 1930s by the folk-music archivists John and Alan Lomax on their tour of the American South. Moby swears he thought it would end his career; to his mind, was one of his "mediocre" albums. Play sold modestly to start with, in the first six months shifting a measly 10,000 copies. But after two years sales had settled around the 10 million mark.
With success came the inevitable backlash, with Moby moving from being credible semi-underground dance hero to ubiquitous king of coffee-table pop. He took endless flak in the press for licensing the album's tracks to television advertisers.
"I still don't get what that was about," he remarks without rancour. "As far as I'm concerned, the whole point of making music is to get it heard by as many people as possible. It was particularly interesting that all those who felt moved to criticise that decision were writing for newspapers and magazines which had advertising on their pages."
Throughout this period Moby was very much the anti-popstar, a man who, despite his wealth, refused to change his lifestyle and seemed to view his fame as a kind of anthropological experiment. Stories circulated of sex parties and trysts with supermodels, though many of these were spread by Moby himself in order to test the gullibility of interviewers ("Have I dated a supermodel? Of course not. I'd look ridiculous").
Despite the tall tales, you sense that Moby was desperate to be seen as normal, the antithesis of a spoiled, stadium-filling musician, even though, he now says, he was quietly "plumbing the cliched depths of alcohol and drugs". He has, he says, taken enough ecstasy over the years to turn his brain to "Swiss cheese", while a few years ago he finally sought professional help to curb his drinking.
"Don't get me wrong, it was fun for a while," he continues. "Really, really fun. But when the novelty wears off you're left with this intense loneliness, and the creeping suspicion that you have turned into an idiot. At the time I found the best way to deal with that was to drink." Twenty years of hard touring has taken its toll on Moby too. "There've been times when I've hated it," he says. "I mean, I'm not complaining. I once worked as a dishwasher in a shopping mall in Stanford, Connecticut, where I never saw any daylight. That was worth complaining about.
"I now get to make music for a living, which is obviously a good position to be in. But there have been times when I've felt so distant, so removed from the rest of humanity, that I've forgotten what it is to be normal."
Moby has, he estimates, spent nearly half his life on tour, living out of suitcases, checking in and out of hotels, clambering on and off tour-buses and existing in a near-permanent state of sleep deprivation and jet-lag.
Now he has channelled this sense of dislocation into an album. Destroyed is his 10th studio LP and was written in the dead of night in hotel rooms across the world.
"The title isn't meant in a violent way," explains Moby. "It's more applying entropy to the human condition, looking at what's left of a person when everything familiar is taken away from them, which is essentially what happens when you're on tour for a long time. This experience has always been intensified for me as I also have trouble sleeping, especially when I travel. Over time I've come to terms with my insomnia. I've got to the stage now where the weirdness of the middle of a night in a strange city is oddly comforting. It's almost disappointing when the sun comes up and the mystery and the magic of the night is gone."
It's this mystery and magic that characterises Destroyed, an album of atmospheric instrumentals, ghostly melodies and disembodied voices that perfectly captures the peculiar calm of the small hours. As Moby describes it, it's "broken-down electronic music for empty cities at 2am."
Alongside the album, Moby is also publishing a book of his photographs that offers an alternative view of the life of the touring musician. With its images of anonymous hotel-rooms, dreary airport waiting-areas and deserted highways at night, it depicts an unusually unglamorous way of life.
"When you're a musician there's this curious juxtaposition," he explains. "One minute you're all alone in a dressing room with a grimy sofa and strip lighting and a plate of food that you don't want to eat, the next you're walking on stage and you're face to face with 40,000 people all focused on you. On a neurochemical level, that can do strange things to you." Even so, Moby tells me he has "made peace" with the peculiarities of his lifestyle, and also with the dark days following the success of Play, though not without some assistance, he admits.
"Therapy," he says, "has been extremely useful. I've done dynamic psychoanalysis and also the cognitive behavioural kind that deals with specific issues. I've stopped going now, as my similarity to Woody Allen should only go so far. But being human can be a baffling and overwhelming thing. That there are people out there who can help you navigate that is a very great and comforting thing."
He also stopped drinking a few years ago "as a consequence of being hung over for 48 hours, when I'd only been drinking for six. I guess, as you get older, these things hit you harder. Hangovers for me became debilitating and soul-destroying. I had to stop."
For Moby, moving to Los Angeles has been another all-important step to a better life. He finally fell out of love with New York when it, "became a playground for people who work on Wall Street. It's now such an affluent place that all the struggling artists and musicians and writers who I've always lived amongst have been priced out. My new home in east LA feels how New York used to feel to me. It's run-down, there are artists and musicians all living cheek by jowl, and it has a very creative atmosphere."
Rather sweetly, Moby's greatest hope, over the next few years, is "to get over my crippling fear of intimacy and actually have a relationship, the healthy, long-lasting kind."
I ask him what happened with his last girlfriend, an English girl whom he was with when we last met two years ago. "Oh," he sighs. "She's engaged and living in Portugal. Touring is like joining the French Foreign Legion. Rather than work on a relationship I tend to just disappear for a year. It's something I need to work on. I'm about to go out on tour for around six months but after that my aim is to build some semblance of a normal existence and essentially do what other people do: wash dishes, look after the garden, go to the store, all that stuff."
For a moment it sounds as if he's on the brink of retirement. What about making music, I ask. "Oh, I will always do that," Moby replies. "I've been making it since I was 10 and, luckily for me, it's never been contingent upon external validation.
"Music is my favourite thing about my life and I'll carry on making it whether people listen to it or not. I'll do it till I'm dead."
'Destroyed', the album and accompanying book, is released on 16 May on Little Idiot. An exhibition of photographs from 'Destroyed' will be at the Proud Gallery, London NW1 ( www.proud.co.uk) 18 May to 19 June
Win one of 40 copies of Moby's new album and accompanying book of photography. To be in with a chance, answer the following question at www.independent.co.uk/promocompetitions: To which American author is Moby related?
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